It's 4 o'clock in the morning, we're still 100 miles from home and we've been driving the 2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited in one form or another for nearly 24 hours. Our trip from the top of California to the bottom was supposed to include a stop at a resort town along the way, but our photographer/tour guide didn't anticipate people on vacation in August so it's one "No Vacancy" after another.
We expect he'll also be startled when the sun rises in the morning, but until then we've decided to plow the rest of the way home. An endless stream of Howard Stern on the Sirius Satellite Radio is keeping us sane, but the new Wrangler deserves a little credit, too.
You see, unlike previous Wranglers which at 75 mph provided all the solitude of a parachute jump, the 2007 Wrangler has a tight canvas top and much less wind howl. Add in decent seats, extra sound insulation and a spacious interior and driving this Wrangler at highway speeds feels less like a Fear Factor challenge and more like a normal SUV. Oh, and it's still pretty good in the dirt, too.
We started the day on the trail, specifically the Rubicon Trail. It's a legendary off-road route near Lake Tahoe, California, used by Jeep in the development of nearly all of its vehicles. It's not so much a trail as it is a series of loosely grouped boulders, ravines and ledges which leave just enough room to squeeze a well-driven four-wheel drive through, or in our case, a four-door Wrangler Unlimited.
That's right, a four-door Wrangler. It's the first one ever and unlike the previous Wrangler Unlimited, which was the stretched version of the standard two-door, the 2007 Wrangler Unlimited uses a 20.6-inch-longer wheelbase to make room for full-size rear doors. It's 5.5 inches wider than previous Wranglers, too, a trait it shares with the standard two-door model.
Actually, other than its longer wheelbase, extra doors and optional two-wheel drive, the Unlimited shares almost everything with the standard Wrangler. It comes in three trim levels — X, Sahara and Rubicon — and is powered by a 3.8-liter V6 with 202 horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque. Its standard transmission is a six-speed manual; a four-speed automatic is optional.
All Wranglers also get a five-link straight axle suspension front and rear, revised shocks and springs, a recirculating ball steering system and a fully boxed frame that Jeep says is twice as stiff as the previous version.
Makes the Rubicon easy
On the trail we drove none other than the heavy-duty Rubicon model. It's upgraded for serious off-road duty with electronically lockable front and rear differentials, heavy-duty Dana 44 axles, 32-inch BFGoodrich Mud Terrain tires and extra-low 4.00:1 transfer case gears. All Rubicons also get a new detachable front sway bar that improves suspension articulation by 28 percent at the touch of a button, according to Jeep.
Saying the Wrangler made the trail easy might be putting it lightly. Tackling the Rubicon requires a good spotter, Gandhi-like patience and the right vehicle, and we only had two out of three. The Wrangler made up for it with more than 10 inches of ground clearance, multiple skid plates and class-leading approach and departure angles. Throw in the new electronic throttle control system, which reduces pedal sensitivity in 4-low, and maintaining a smooth pace up tough sections like Cadillac Hill was well, easy.
Since there will be inevitable comparisons between the Wrangler's off-road abilities and other trail-hungry SUVs like the Hummer H3, Nissan Xterra and Toyota FJ Cruiser we'll settle it right now. Any of the four could tackle the Rubicon, but none would do it as easily and with less body damage than a Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon.
Back to the real world
It wasn't even noon before we had finished off three bags of beef jerky and one of the world's toughest backcountry trails. Having switched into an Unlimited in Sahara trim, we hit the pavement feeling pretty good about the new Wrangler. Although it has a part-time transfer case with a floor-mounted shifter like the Rubicon, the Sahara has softer suspension tuning so we expected a decent ride.
It wasn't long, however, before we remembered why the Wrangler is a trail machine first and a daily driver second. It started out with little things like the lack of storage space up front and small cupholders. But as the miles piled up it was clear the Wrangler has bigger issues.
For one, the engine is gutless. It revved smoothly up the first highway grade, but when a 3-year-old toasted his sippy cup to us as his mom blew by in her minivan we knew there was a problem. Subsequent track tests confirmed the Wrangler's laziness as our six-speed tester posted a 0-to-60 time of 9.7 seconds. The Nissan Xterra completes the same sprint a full 2 seconds faster and it's 134 pounds heavier.
Its braking and handling performance aren't any better. Actually, they are better if you compare them to the previous Wrangler as the '07 version benefits from a 3.5-inch wider track, high-pressure monotube shocks and standard antilock disc brakes at each corner. It tracks better on the highway and leans less in the turns, too, but its 143-foot stop from 60 was 20 feet longer than the last FJ we tested.
Clearly the slalom is no place for a Jeep, but given that we were able to coax a Dodge Ram Megacab dually through the cones at a faster clip, the Wrangler's 54.4-mph run is a little embarrassing.
After a few hundred miles on the highway, we readjust to the Wrangler's anemic performance and begin to appreciate its relatively comfortable cabin. Despite generic-looking seats with basic adjustments, our backsides feel pretty good. The seating position is a little too upright and the dash is tall, but visibility isn't a problem. Power windows and locks are offered for the first time ever, and clever engineering assures that the doors are still fully removable if that's your style.
Up front, this Wrangler has as much room as the FJ and in back there's more leg- , head- and hip room than either the Toyota or the Xterra. Cargo room is class-leading as well, with up to 86 cubic feet available with the second-row seats folded.
If you were hoping Jeep would spend a little time giving the Wrangler's interior some interesting design elements you're out of luck. You get characterless analog gauges; small, cheap-feeling climate control knobs; and plenty of Kia-grade plastic on the dash and doors. We're all for keeping a Jeep a Jeep, but with an as-tested price of just over $30K we expected a little more.
The modern design of the new Chrysler corporate stereo looks a little out of place, but our upgraded unit delivers solid sound not to mention an auxiliary input jack and an in-dash six-disc CD changer with DVD-Audio capability. A navigation system is also an option as is a 20-gig hard drive with a USB interface. If the designers had put as much time into the cabin as the audio engineers did this Wrangler would be a bombshell.
Admittedly some of those resources went toward improved safety as all Jeeps now come standard with electronic stability control and a roll mitigation system which can sense an impending rollover and try to stop it through selective application of the brakes. It's good to know as our Wrangler Unlimited is running the Sunrider soft top. A three-piece, hard shell "Freedom top" is also available, although the noise of the canvas cover is well controlled, not to mention you can fold it down in a matter of minutes.
Home at last
Rolling into L.A. just before the sun comes up, we've got mixed feelings about this Wrangler. In any trim it's like a rock climber who doesn't need a rope, but with four doors the Unlimited needs to be equally as comfortable on the pavement. It's not. In Sahara trim the Wrangler Unlimited is already crude and miserably slow, while in Rubicon trim, with its larger off-road tires and stiffer shocks, performance and daily comfort are compromised even further.
Still, it's far more livable than any Wrangler before it. If you're willing to trade refinement and power for agility on the trail and a convertible top, the Unlimited may be worth the dough. After nearly a full day behind the wheel we're convinced of two things: The Jeep Wrangler will remain a niche player, and we'll never rely on a photographer to make our travel plans ever again.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
System Score: 9.0
Components: Our Wrangler Unlimited came with a six-disc CD changer capable of playing MP3 CDs as well as DVD-A discs. There are seven speakers including an Infinity subwoofer mounted in the rear cargo area. The head unit also comes ready for Sirius Satellite Radio and has a mini-jack input for connecting handheld MP3 players. Audio system options include a 20-gig hard drive that contains navigation info, and you can store photos and music downloadable from USB, DVD, MP3 or a standard CD. That system also comes with Gracenote software for managing music files. Those features are accessible via a touchscreen when the Wrangler is equipped with MyGIG multimedia system.
Performance: There are only so many places you can put speakers on an off-road vehicle that features removable doors and a convertible top. Even so, Jeep has come up with unique solutions while at the same time delivering a flexible stereo with solid, full-range sound.
We were shocked to learn of the system's ability to play DVD-A discs. This feature is usually reserved for high-end luxury sedans, not $30K Jeeps. When playing DVDs, the bass is clean and tight and the sound is well-rounded considering the noisy cabin. Tweeters are placed up front but they point directly at the driver since the windshield is too upright to use it as a sounding board. To get reasonably sized speakers in back, Jeep has two midrange speakers mounted on the crossbar that supports the top structure.
When playing normal two-channel CDs, the sound quality is still good but not nearly as dynamic. The bass is prominent thanks to a cargo area-mounted sub and the highs are sharp. The stereo gets very loud but isn't prone to distortion. There's a midrange adjustment which is a feature we always appreciate. Taking some of the mids out cleans up the sound and gives most music a little more sparkle.
The head unit is attractive and displays plenty of information and the buttons seem of a much higher quality than past Jeep products.
Best Feature: Lots of options, flexible system even without the MyGIG feature.
Worst Feature: Bass from non-DVD discs can sound messy.
Conclusion: An unexpectedly excellent stereo in a vehicle where producing great sound is clearly a challenge. For just $350, the CD changer upgrade package is one of the best bargains in the industry. — Brian Moody
Inside Line Editor in Chief Richard Homan says:
I'm sick to admit it, but I've just concluded that it's more important for an off-roader to be "at one" with his vehicle than a sports car driver. The Acura NSX, among others, showed that a sports car could still be true to its purpose even as its high-tech stripped the driver of some control. That's not so true with an off-road vehicle. What I really like about the new Jeep Wrangler four-door is how basic it is. By and large, you're still expected to be involved in driving it.
I appreciate its rough, throat-clearing, under-inspired V6 connected to an imprecise, yet honest, six-speed manual transmission. Its tippy, but solid, platform. A blocky design ensuring that each of the vehicle's four corners is clearly evident to the driver, so as not to be pranged by the miscalculated location of a tree trunk or an outcropping of rock. A rear-window framing device so nonintuitive in its operation that it would send super-outdoorsman Indiana Jones walking away in tears.
This Jeep is still about roughing it (there's no dead pedal in the footwell), but it's about roughing it with some style: Even with the soft top, the interior ambience is light-years better than the old Wrangler's noisy maelstrom. There's an acre of storage space for provisions. And it's even got a one-touch-down driver window. Tres chic. Tres moderne. But still an honest, trail-worthy slap on the back from an off-road enthusiast vehicle.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
Wow! This Wrangler is a strange and compelling combination of next-generation technology and rough, almost crude vehicle dynamics. I love the available audio and nav features that are on par with a Mercedes Benz S-Class but I wouldn't want to drive this thing to work every day.
I get that the extra space between the wheels adds real and usable interior space and I can appreciate the extra doors. But if I were shopping for a four-door Jeep, I'd stick with a Commander or Grand Cherokee. Those trucks are the perfect combination of everyday civility and off-road ability.
Even if I were looking to tackle the Rubicon I'd like an interior that's a little more modern Jeep and less WWII utilitarian. I'd be looking for more comfortable seats as well. On-road ride quality is another low point for me — The Wrangler Unlimited seems purpose-built for those who love to attend Jeep Jamborees but their growing family means they need a bigger truck. That's great for them, but I just can't make the needed sacrifice knowing that the extent of my off-roading will be when I accidentally back over my neighbor's rose bushes.